Ming the Mechanic:
Free Will

The NewsLog of Flemming Funch
 Free Will2007-01-16 16:28
17 comments
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The discussion of whether we have free will or not seems to be in the news again recently. Like: New York Times: Free Will: Now you have it, now you don't.

It is a pretty dumb discussion.

It is a bit like the discussion of evolution versus intelligent design. Except for that the two sides of that discussion both tend towards being against free will, but contradicting themselves in different ways.

If there's an entity called God who decides everything, then how can humans have free will about anything? Just doesn't make sense. But at the same time, a good believer is supposed to make moral choices that please that God, which requires free will.

Same thing with science. If a scientist is trying to establish that everything is based on natural laws, as a logical evolution of the physical elements involved, who is going to decide? See, the contemplation of any question, scientific or otherwise, pre-supposes the existence of somebody who'll decide what is right and what isn't. You can't imagine anything, comtemplate anything, decide anything, without some kind of free will, or rather free choice in choosing the best answer. So, if you end up deciding that you have no free will, you've just shot yourself in the foot in a major way, as there's no way you could arrive at such a decision if you don't.

The big invisible pink elephant in the room is consciousness or awareness or whatever we call it. Any kind of reflection on a problem requires that you are aware of the problem and of possible choices about it. That would all be impossible unless there was some kind of freedom of choice about it. Awareness implies some level of choice.

At the same time, on a physical level, or even a psychological level, as to why things are the way they are, and why we make the choices we do, it is clear that if we look closely enough, we can find influences that pre-determine most of it. Which speaks against free will to a large extent.

On the side of free will would be, for example, a new age view that we're creating our own reality. That you're free to attract whatever you desire in your life, and create whatever you want out of your life. And, despite that I'm leaning towards that view, it is usually greatly over-simplified.

If I sat down one day and visualized that I wanted a red Ferrari, and I did it extremely well, affirming it, believing it, manifesting it, and the next morning there indeed was a red Ferrari in my driveway, and it was mine - how would that have happened? The new agey view is that I created it. Or, the religious view, that God answered my prayers. But if we examined the facts, we'd find that there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for everything. The atoms of the car certainly wouldn't have manifested out of thin air. There'd be a story behind it. The car would have been manufactured the normal way, at the Ferrari factory in Italy. Somebody would have bought it. There'd be a perfectly logical story for how it got here, and why it now is mine. I might have signed up for some lottery last year that I forgot about, but the records would show that I really did. Somebody actually drove it to my house and parked it there. At the physical level, nothing would be magical about it at all. The lottery had been in process for years, and somebody had to win that car.

Was that free will? Did I create that car? Or did I maybe just suddenly express an awareness of something that already was happening, or by some strange, but not impossible coincidence I got a random idea which happened to correspond to reality?

I'd say that we both have 100% free will and 0%, and the paradox of that is what keeps life interesting.

If we had a way of adding it up, we'd probably find that 100% of what happens in the physical world can be explained logically with physical laws. I'm sure we don't know all of them, but if we did, everything would probably turn out to be perfectly sensible. And we might find that we have 0% chance of casually changing those basic laws of physics just because we have another idea one day.

But at the same time we have an awareness, a reflective intelligence, we have consciousness. In principle, theoretically, I'd say that the potential is for 100% freedom there, although we'd have a very hard time getting there. See, no matter what actually happens, you're free to have another idea about it. Even if your life is falling to pieces and the planet will be demolished tomorrow, you could very well decide to be optimistic and that life is pretty good. You're free to disagree.

But, in practice, your ability to perceive and to think is dependent on your past experiences, the neural paths in your brain formed by past habits, the words and concepts you've learned to accept, etc. Humans are all too easy to condition and mislead. The majority of the time we're merely regurgitating what has been fed into us, making our best guesses based on what we're presented with, and generally trying to act normal like everybody else. So, if there were a way of adding it up, maybe 99% or even 99.9% of what you think or do could be accounted for and explained as the result of what was fed into you. Sad, but probably true.

But what remains is the important part. Because that's YOU. Ok, there's your identity, which maybe to a large degree is made of what was fed to you, the genetic make-up of your body, the impressions fed in through your perceptions and experiences. But no matter which way we turn it or how much we argue, there's still you who with your awareness can perceive and think and make choices. Please don't let anybody persuade you that you don't exist. They might not know whether you exist or not, but you yourself should know by now.

And it isn't necessarily as bad as it sounds. See, there are possible ways of understanding reality that might make it all come together in a way that would satisfy everybody. Like, there's hope in quantum physics or something similar, if we manage to understand it and integrate it. We might get down to understanding that what really is there is merely a blank canvas. Just like something might be a particle or a wave depending on how you look at it, we might end up accepting that the whole universe works like that. That it is all a virtual reality, and that our awareness and perceptions is a key component in playing it. You know, there's nothing there but quantum soup until somebody comes along and sees it. Whether he sees one thing or another is all the same to the universe, but what he sees will be entirely consistent with itself.

Another possibility is the multiple-world thing. That all possible scenarios for everything is already there, already laid out. And multiple different scenarios are always close by. So, there's a universe where the Ferrari is in my driveway tomorrow, and a whole bunch of universes where it isn't. Whether it is or isn't, it will be entirely logical and consistent, apparently inevitable, based on a series of irrefutable events. But maybe there was a choice of which track of the world I persued.

And maybe that had something to do with the 0.01% of my consciousness that wasn't tied up in trying to conform. The part that actualy pays attention.


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17 comments

16 Jan 2007 @ 14:08 by Merlin Silk @76.168.91.127 : philosophy 101
I remember my very first exposure to philosophy - many years ago - something I am still working on to understand: that there is nothing else outside of me that I could possibly prove to be there - the old cogito ergo sum - that's one one and ONLY thing I can really know.
That there even IS a physical law is just a matter of faith. And here we see good faith in action - we are really sure that all these laws are there. I remember two instances in my life where I seriously questioning these physical laws for an instant - and was that terrifying! So I obviously did not continue with my doubts and went back to faith.
Darn - I really wonder what it will be when I wake up...  



16 Jan 2007 @ 16:01 by ming : Philosophy
Yeah, see, I think it is very important to notice and remember stuff like that. The only thing I can really be sure of is that I exist and that I think and perceive, and that I can form beliefs from that. But nothing beyond that I can really be sure of. Then one can of course expand from there and try out different beliefs. "If I go ahead and act like ___ is true, where does that get me?" and thus arrive at some empirical truths. But it is probably wise to never get too cocky and start claiming one has found THE one and only truth. Even the best of us are mostly guessing.  


17 Jan 2007 @ 15:08 by celestial : Ming, what about this?
In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falleth upon men, in slumberings upon the bed; then he openeth the ears of men, and sealeth their instruction. Job 33:15-16

Do dreams download (or upload) programs into our brain? If so, then the programs provide choices but the consequences are pre-determined.

This is an observation I've noticed.  



17 Jan 2007 @ 15:26 by ming : Dreams
I'd say that the dream state is where we lower most of our normal mental walls and preconceptions, so we can connect with the realm of possibilities more easily. We might use that for just mulling over other variations on the day that just passed, or for actually accessing some deeper realms of reality we normally can't see.

In my experience, my greatest creativity and the best solutions to problems have appeared while I was sleeping. That is, I wake up in the morning and I somehow know exactly what to do.

We focus so much on the conscious analytical part of our mind, thinking of it as 'me' and getting really infatuated with how damn smart we are. Where, really, that's also the part of us that causes the most trouble, and makes us be very knuckleheadedly set in our ways. The really good stuff usually comes from the sub-conscious. Or maybe super-conscious. And usually requires getting your mental self out of the way. Which in part is what happens when one sleeps.  



19 Jan 2007 @ 19:00 by Palden @82.252.134.89 : Free will dimension
As with your last saturday post, it's about dimensions of comprension for me.

On Level 1 (the one we live in), free will results from our fundamental ignorance of our future. So we have to search, struggle and find our way in life.

On Level 2 it seems obvious that every effect has a (in fact, many) cause which has a cause and so on... up to the Big Bang !

But we are stuck to Level 1, and so have the "illusion" of free will (but it's "real" at Level 1) and are subject to... procrastination !  



19 Jan 2007 @ 19:47 by ming : Searching
That's an interesting concept, that because the future is hidden, we have to search, struggle and find our way, which obviously can be considered some kind of free will. At least it would be rather pointless if that wasn't the point somehow. Just like bacteria many years ago evolved the concept of death, in order to advance faster, we could maybe imagine that our concept of time was evolved/designed to maximize discovery and learning.

And, yeah, that same fixed idea of time, where the past is considered frozen, keeps us stuck at a certain level of linear living. Where we might as well realize that everything does have many causes, and many more possible causes. Which changes everything quite a bit if we can truly grasp it.

Probably the joke is that if we evolve to understand how what we consider to be free will is but an illusion, there will be something more freeing about operating from that level. Or what we considered to be freedom will be understood to be pointless, and there will be something better to grok.  



19 Jan 2007 @ 20:07 by Hanae @68.164.57.94 : Things that make you go Hume
Compatibilism and Incompatibilism.

An old question, which has ben treated many many times, and as Ming points it out, is periodically (and often very confusingly) revisited, like most recently in the New York Time (the article is not all that bad actually.)

Wikipedia, here, does a rather good job of covering the Determinism/Free will pseudo-debate.

"Compatibilists, being determinists, argue that all acts that take place are predetermined by prior causes. Because human decision is an act that is not exempt from prior cause, by this definition, some determinists known as hard determinists believe that free will thus becomes an illusion. A compatibilist however will draw a distinction between an act that is forced and an act that is chosen, and it is this distinction that defines for them what free will actually is. For example, you could choose to keep or delete this page. Whilst a compatibilist will not try to deny that whatever choice you make will have been predetermined since the beginning of time, they will argue that this choice that you make is an example of free will because no one is forcing you to make whatever choice you make. In contrast, someone could be holding a gun to your head and tell you that unless you delete the page, they will kill you. To a compatibilist, this is an example of a lack of free will. Compatibilists are occasionally referred to as soft determinists."

Palden's point (above comment) is a good one (there is indeed a connection here, to some degree, to Ming's earlier post about dimensions), it is important to bear in mind that many pointless debates on the matter often are the result of the fact that people are using different definitions of "free-will" (Soft determinism vs. Hard determinism).

"Whether or not the universe is determined does not change the fact that the future is unknown, and that a person's actions help determine that future. In fact, it is even conceivable that a lack of belief in determinism could lead to 'bleak pessimism', or fatalism, since one could potentially believe that their actions did nothing to determine future events."  



19 Jan 2007 @ 20:55 by Hanae @68.164.57.94 : Something better to grok

Yes, that's a very good point, too.

The Map is not the territory.

The world we live in remains mostly a mystery - the nameless:

"Forces that we cannot understand permeate our universe. We see the shadows of those forces when they are projected upon a screen available to our senses, but understand them we do not. Understanding requires words. Some things cannot be reduced to words. There are things that can only be experienced wordlessly. This says our universe is magical. It says all arbitrary forms are transient and subject to magical changes. Science has led us to this interpretation as though it placed us on a track from which we cannot deviate."
---Frank Herbert, Heretics of Dune

It is important to bear in mind,too, that we don't know everything there is to know of the world we live in, or of the laws by which it operates, or, for that matter, how those laws manifest. The deterministic world-view by which the universe is nothing more than a chain of events following one after another according to the law of cause and effect is only an abstraction based on what is a limited (and unavoidably anthropocentrist) understanding of "reality."  



19 Jan 2007 @ 21:56 by ming : Free Will
I just thought of something. Actually, even if we accepted that maybe a decision was unequivocally determined, all the way back to the Big Bang, or whatever, it doesn't rule out free will, even in the hardcore sense. Like Palden mentioned, there's no good reason to not consider the past as merely a probable past, just like we have probable futures, which is easier to understand. Meaning, if I take a certain decision now, I choose road B rather than road A in the crossroad, then the possible pasts will adjust that that, and a particular set of probable pasts will emerge, in complete alignment with the decision I just took. Just like the probable future is different depending on which road I take. No different really, other than it is harder for humans to think about the past as flexible, and the future as existing.

So, even if you can track my decision back any distance and claim that I did that only because the Big Bang was rotating a zillionth of a degree to the right, it doesn't prove anything, because cause isn't linear and uni-directional like that. One might as well say that my decision changed the nature of the Big Bang a little bit.

Just means that things are connected. I can't do any action without affecting both the past and the future a little bit. It doesn't happen in a vacuum.

So, any act of free will change the whole thing, the whole universe past, present, future, and whatever else there is. That's no more or less logical than saying it is the other way around, that the whole universe inescapably causes me to take that action. Two sides of exactly the same thing. Each incorrect in separation, but sensible as a unit. And if we escape from the mechanical newtonian physics, it isn't even very strange.  



20 Jan 2007 @ 00:14 by GeZi @76.168.91.127 : changing physical laws
What comes to mind is my experience once over the Atlantic, when I looked out over the wing of the 747 I was sitting in and the thought hit me "this thing can't fly!"
Rather scared I took back that decision immediately - I was, after all, 30000 feet up in the air.
But it got me thinking and I realized that even those unchanging physical laws seem to change all time. I am now sure that by the laws of the Wright Brothers that 747 would have never been able to leave the ground. So, by making decisions that this big hung of metal does not plummet to the ground, we have changed the past, and looking from now it looks like they have ever been that way - guess that what 'the past' actually is, right?  



20 Jan 2007 @ 11:19 by ming : Physical laws
It is entirely possible that what actually, objectively exists of physical laws is a lot more basic than we might think. In a way that makes most of our known physical laws be flexible. So, just like how other things will appear different depending on who observes it and how they observe it, it might be exactly the same with physical laws. All that is there might be the blank canvas. Of course it would be reasonable to expect that changing laws takes more momentum than changing more superficial characteristics. A flower might be beautiful for me and ugly for you, no problem. But if I want to change gravity, I might need a lot of friends that agree with me. So, luckily the sudden realization that a 747 shouldn't really be able to fly, doesn't change much, as the general consensus is that, indeed it does, and we can explain why.

Interesting that science to a large degree is based on agreement. The scientific method consists not just of being able to get a consistent result several times, but in inviting a bunch of other people with similar qualifications to get consistent results as well, in the process of which we'll agree on what the rules are.  



20 Jan 2007 @ 15:24 by GeZi @76.168.91.127 : others
hmmm, this argumentation assumes that there are there ARE others that agree with me or have to agree with me to create reality.
But I don't know that there are any - coitus ergo sum - uh, cogito ergo sum, I mean - the only thing I really know. Or there could be a whole scale of other Flemmings of which I am free to choose one to be in my range of perception...  



20 Jan 2007 @ 19:08 by Hanae @68.164.57.94 : Which seems to beg the question:

Which came first the chicken or The crack in the cosmic egg?

Only joking (I kid Gunter and Ming.) I actually do love Joseph Chilton Pearce.

I suspect - as Ming probably does too, judging by his writings - that things are actually (and hopefully) a bit more complex than we imagine them to be, and that Reality is beyond the reach of both conventional and unconventional rationality and reductionist philosophies, including the prevalent Scientific views, Religious Ideologies, Superstition, Wish-fulfillment Fantasy and New Ageism - “The Tao that can be spoken is never the true Tao.”

Do we create our own reality or is “reality” creating us? In some ways, this is just another way of framing the original question about free will (soft/hard determinism.) It also implies a division between “reality” and Man as “separate” from reality, possibly a misleading dichotomy which very premise is necessarily limitedly anthropocentric by its very nature.

Another way of looking at it probably would be to say that “Reality” is “creating” itself, and Man obviously is part of the fabric of that reality.

If we are to believe the current record about evolution, the history of Life on Earth should also be read as a cautionary tale: it is filled with examples of evolutionary dead-end. Man (and many life forms as they exist now on planet Earth) might just currently be at such an evolutionary dead-end----or not.

As it is, it just seems like it’s going to be up to Man, at this point, doesn’t it? But freewill is as will does. And what is Man’s will? Does Man know?

Is Man free?  



20 Jan 2007 @ 19:42 by Hanae @68.164.57.94 : Little wonder then...

...that the question of whether Man has free will or not seems to be in the news again recently.

If there's ever been a critical time for Mankind to urgently ask itself this question, this is probably it!  



21 Jan 2007 @ 20:13 by Palden @82.253.1.13 : Level 3
>"a lack of belief in determinism could lead to 'bleak pessimism', or fatalism"
Indeed : our present actions are parts of the causes of our futur. I like the idea that this determinisme leads to moral responsability and not fatalism.

> "The deterministic world-view by which the universe is nothing more than a chain of events following one after another according to the law of cause and effect is only an abstraction based on what is a limited (and unavoidably anthropocentrist) understanding of "reality""
Yes, there might be a "Level 3", above the deterministic "Level 2"...  



22 Jan 2007 @ 14:34 by i2i : dead link
The Crack in the Cosmic Egg - ah, yes, I remember that book (I still have a copy of it at home.)

Incidentally, I couldn't help but notice that the reference page to which Hanae had provided a link is now dead. It contained a short review of Joseph Chilton Pearce's book. This could just be a temporary thing, but just in case, here is a link to a google snapshot of the missing page.  



17 Apr 2007 @ 19:04 by Lee @72.154.8.12 : free will
All free will is limited to choices between acceptance or rejection of truth but our choices of such do not change Truth Law, they just alter the results of reap as we sow. Truth Law controls, regulates, and sustains everything. Not knowing truth before making any choice is just a gamble on the results of free will choice. For a more abundant life, learm more truth.  


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